Okinawa Troop Withdrawal: Why the U.S. and Japan Have a Lot More Talking to Do

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U.S. Marine soldiers from 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Battalion landing team deployed from Okinawa, Japan, exit an Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) during the U.S. and South Korean Marines joint landing operation at Pohang seashore on March 29, 2012 in Pohang, South Korea.

The deadlock over what to do with thousands of Marines on Okinawa loosened up a little today with the announcement that the U.S. and Japan have decided to relocate 9000 Marines off Okinawa “to locations outside of Japan.” The new deal, while still vague, is undoubtedly prompting a few Friday night toasts in Washington and Tokyo between those who sat at the table for months of bilateral talks on a long-stalled 2006 agreement to reduce the impact of U.S. forces on the Japanese island.

In keeping with the America’s “pivot to Asia” strategy, several thousands of the Marines will be moved to Guam and the rest to other locations around the Asia-Pacific region. About 10,000 Marines will still remain on Okinawa, along with tens of thousands of other U.S. service members and their dependents. A U.S. official told the AP on Thursday night that Japan will pick up $3 billion of the estimated $8.6 billion bill to relocate the Marines to Guam.

(READ: Why Okinawa won’t be celebrating the departures of hundreds of Marines.)

Announced ahead of Prime Minister Noda’s visit to the U.S. next week, the deal also will hurry along the closure of several U.S. military facilities on the island. At present, Okinawa hosts over 70% of the U.S. bases in Japan, a fact that rankles many local residents and lawmakers who feel that they bear an unfair burden of the U.S.-Japan military alliance compared to mainland Japan. “The government of Japan says the treaty is of national interest and its for security, but none of the other prefectures will accept [more U.S. military],” says Masahide Ota, founder of the Ota Peace Research Institute in Okinawa’s capital city, Naha. “It’s not fair. The U.S. is still treating Okinawa like a colony.”

Since the U.S. handed Okinawa back to Japan in 1972, residents’ list of grievances with its activity and service members has lengthened, running from nuisances like plane noise and drunk Marines in their yards at night to fatal traffic accidents and several high-profile cases of sexual assault. The kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. service members led to massive protests on the island in 1995 and, ultimately, laid the foundation for the 2006 deal designed to neutralize tensions.

But a vocal group of Okinawans were unhappy with that agreement, which stipulated that 8000 Marines would only move to Guam once Tokyo moved ahead with relocating a controversial base to a more remote spot on the island. Everyone agrees the Futenma air station, located in a densely populated neighborhood, should move, but many residents living near the proposed relocation site don’t want more Marines nearby and are worried about the environmental impact the newcomers will have. The local government is sympathetic to their cause — and, perhaps more to the point, has been unwilling to bend to the central government’s will on this. As a result, since 2006, Tokyo hasn’t come up with a politically viable way to push the relocation forward, creating an awkward impasse at a time when the U.S. wants to redistribute troops around the Pacific to respond to China flexing its growing naval muscle.

Earlier this year, the U.S. and Japan finally agreed to de-link the two sticking points, allowing the Marines to move without resolving the base relocation issue. With today’s news, the first problem seems to be more or less solved. The second is going to be tricky. Unlike Ota, many islanders recognize Japan’s geopolitical vulnerability next to China, and are okay with the U.S. military presence on the island. But they really don’t like Futenma, smack in the middle of a densely populated neighborhood, making the takeoff and landing of planes both a constant source of noise pollution and a potential hazard. And they really don’t like the only alternative on the table, moving Futenma’s personnel to a cove on the north part of the island where fragile habitats might be disturbed. Both Washington and Tokyo are still insisting that is the only tenable option, so round and round it seems doomed to go.

Earlier this week, three top-ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed that concern in a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), John McCain (R-AZ) and Jim Webb (D-VA) released a statement that they have “serious questions” about “the core details of this or any basing arrangement, including cost estimates, military sustainment and force management, and how it would support a broader strategic concept of operations in this increasingly vital region.” They were irked that the agreement was not run by Congress before it was announced as a done deal, and warned that in its current form, it “could have the unintended consequences of creating more difficulties for our important alliance.”

Krista Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr.

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